On (and Off, and On) the Wagon

A chef’s farewell toast to the pleasures of the cup.

My uncle leaned across the table to my girlfriend. “The second best day of George’s life,” he said, “was the day he started drinking. I believe we have you to thank for that.”

The three of us were drinking wildly expensive gin and tonics at the Palm Court of the old Plaza Hotel on a Saturday afternoon, toasting the end of an era that had its origins in the bedroom of a high school friend in South Carolina.

There, surrounded by Black Flag and Christian Hosoi posters, working out Meat Puppets songs on guitar, we’d riffed endlessly on the same line about our so-called friends: It was pathetic how they drank and smoked, pathetic how they’d all end up pledging fraternities and sororities at Clemson and Carolina, pathetic how they were doomed to be lawyers and doctors just like their fathers.

Hating drinking was part of the package of annoying teenage behavior I’d offered my parents. I was also combative about the length of my hair and my disgust with religion and the significance of my piercings. I wouldn’t eat meat; I smoked weed and gobbled up hallucinogens. But I didn’t drink, and I saw this as a gift to my parents so profound I expected it to offset every other misdeed.

My adolescent misanthropy wore off, as it does, but I found other reasons to hate drinking. It was the era in which a politician’s career could founder on the revelation that he’d once been in the same room as marijuana, before Clinton’s “but I didn’t inhale” defense. I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown paper: How’d we get so cozy with booze that we’d laugh off adults drinking themselves sick while we pilloried politicians for admitting they knew what weed looked like? How come we practically encouraged drunken tourists to carom through the streets of Charleston while I couldn’t sit in my room and smoke weed and listen to “Heart of the Sunrise” on repeat without risking jail? The paper published this, to the chagrin of my father’s parishioners.

I marched under this banner for years, preaching like a mis-wired Mormon that drinking was lame, conformist, complicit in strengthening the grip of corporations on our country. But as college wore on and my interest in Foucault and cooking eclipsed my interest in mescaline and guitar—and as interesting people started brewing beer on their own and the people I actually liked and admired drank wine at dinner—my aversion seemed less like a noble stand and more like a strange personal quirk.

I started drinking during my junior year of college, well past my 21st birthday. The girlfriend I sat in the Palm Court with was indeed the reason I fell off the wagon: She’d seemed not only unimpressed by my teetotaling but turned off by it. And so—for love of a girl—I finally gave in and got drunk.

But not with her—not the first time. Instead, I drank with my best friend, who was experienced, even accomplished, in the art. We sat up all night in the kitchen of the old shamble of a house we rented, taking tiny sips from a bottle of Old Charter bourbon that we’d found in a cabinet. We mixed splashes of it with spoons of Countrytime lemonade powder and drank it out of shot glasses. Just one tiny nip after another until we’d finished the bottle, finished the Countrytime, given ourselves sour stomachs and canker sores. We watched the sun rise from the back porch and then put on jackets and ties and stumbled to campus to attend the baccalaureate ceremony of the class above us. I hadn’t felt so happy in years.

Drinking was a revelation. For one thing, that girlfriend had a collection of wines under her dorm room desk that she’d acquired when her parents had moved and cleared out their cellar—old Bordeaux and rieslings, some ruined by age and some made glorious by it, but each an adventure and a thrill to try.

Beyond that, I felt connected to people in a way I hadn’t before—I discovered that the frat boys and Southern belles I’d so studiously avoided were actually good, interesting people. Friends I’d had frosty relationships with suddenly warmed to me, or I to them, over beers. Cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandmother—all seemed more at ease around me just knowing that I was one of them, that when they offered me a glass of Virginia Gentleman I wouldn’t refuse.

Drinking had lowered a bridge between me and a world that I’d felt alien from. I shared a room with my brother for 16 years, but we really got to know each other in long conversations over 40s of Woodchuck cider. Over the course of my first year of drinking, I broke up with that girlfriend who’d given me my first bottle of wine and—over late-night runs to the Harris Teeter for magnums of Concha y Toro—fell in love with the woman I’m still married to.

It wasn’t just people I learned to love more: Drinking made me fall in love with food, too. I’d always cared about what I ate, but I ate like a technician: How would eating this make me feel? What were the ethical implications of eating that? Eating with a beer or a bottle of wine on the table, I suddenly understood what all the fuss was about.

It happened first at a long-gone restaurant in San Francisco called Abiquiu. I ordered a plate of grilled vegetables and an Anchor Steam, and I was so amazed at the way the bitterness of the beer amplified the flavors of the vegetables that I dreamed about them that night as we camped up on Point Reyes. I fell in love with Marcella Hazan, staining my copy of The Essentials with many a splash of red wine. I had mind-blowing meals at the old Aquavit, a dozen courses paired with wines; and at my grandmother’s house, where a bucket of beer turned out to be the key to enjoying the oyster roasts I’d always felt under-excited about. And I opened a restaurant in Williamsburg, where, in the early days, I began many a shift with a good-luck short beer and finished most with a ritual pint and a shot to celebrate—even when my shift ended at two in the afternoon.

And then, after 15 years of drinking, I quit.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why I did it. There were plenty of small reasons: I wanted to make sure I could, for one thing. I had trouble finding a comfortable midpoint between sobriety and excess. I was a little overwhelmed, trying to keep the books and place orders and cook the line every day and raise children and get a farm off the ground, and I was passing out on the sofa or on the floor of my daughter’s room almost every night. I was legitimately exhausted, I’d tell myself—it’s not that I’m drinking too much. But when I passed out halfway through election night in 2008—sleeping through an event I’d spent months looking forward to—I decided I’d better give not drinking another go.

It was miserable at first. For a week or two, I didn’t want to eat dinner. I was frustrated and angry: What was the point of eating without a bottle of wine? A drink turned a meal from a mere feeding to an occasion of pleasure and meaning. Without one, I thought I might as well eat a Clif Bar and go to bed. It was an alarming way to feel for someone whose whole life is built around the importance of food.

I got used to it, of course—realized there was plenty more to love about food than the way it played off the flavors in a good Barbera. In some ways I became more attentive to it. I was more alert to everything, more energetic. I felt almost manic, amazed at how much I could do now that I’d lifted the soggy blanket of drink from my brain.

But there’s a dark side to not drinking. There’s nothing more uncomfortable—especially for a person in the hospitality business—than saying “no thanks” when someone offers you a drink. It’s a refusal of the simplest gesture of human generosity, like refusing to walk through a door someone’s holding open for you.

And when a person becomes insistently generous (“Can’t I get you something? Are you sure? Don’t make me drink alone!”) and I finally cut him off by explaining that I don’t drink, it’s alarm or pity I see in his eyes. To say that you don’t drink is to announce that you’re an alcoholic or—worse—a religious fanatic, a strident eccentric. It has a jarring effect on conversation, like turning on the houselights in the middle of a play. Sometimes it ends the conversation altogether.

I feel selfish when it happens, a prima donna, too delicate to participate in the scrum of normal life. The bridge goes up again, that easy connection between me and the world withdrawn. I feel distant from my family, out of joint with my friends, a little withdrawn from my community, my restaurants, my neighborhood.

My uncle said the day I started drinking was the second-best day of my life. The best was the day I was confirmed—the day I stood in front of my congregation, all of 13 years old, and affirmed my faith in Christ. I’m from a family of evangelical Episcopalians—both my parents are ministers, for starters. And when you believe like an evangelical, you believe most of all in transformation—that every one of us is capable of great, fundamental change, and that we’re desperate for it.

But confirmation didn’t stick. By the time I was learning guitar in my friend’s room and railing against alcohol, I’d given up on Jesus, and the promise of transformation seemed like a sham, a stage trick. But I was transformed by drinking. It changed my life twice: once when I started, and again when I quit. I expect I’ll start drinking again someday—I never intended quitting to be a final sentence.

When that day comes I hope for no transformation at all—just a quiet return to the company of humans, the full complement of pleasures at the dinner table. Somewhere between a teenager’s murky lair in South Carolina and the potted palms of a marble-pillared room in Manhattan there’s a place I imagine I’ll find to call home, where I can sit and enjoy a beer without losing my head over it.

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